It also helped that Naipaul and the powerful literary agent is one of Tejpal’s favourite friends.
Now, charged with rape by the Goa police, with the dread of arrest and a stint in Goa’s prison—whose dungeons were constructed by the Portuguese to fling heretics in—the situation is reminiscent of his novel The Valley of Masks, which begins dramatically with the protagonist waiting for doom as enemies close around him. He wants to tell his tale while he has the time. But the ageing Tejpal with his sparse ponytail, televangelic looks and black FabIndia kurtas may have run out of time. He has worn many masks—the youngster who wooed his wife Geetan with romantic poetry; India’s best-known literary editor; ruthless entrepreneur and celebrity groupie. In the early 1980s he left Chandigarh where he worked for the The Indian Express to work for an obscure, now defunct magazine called India 2000 in Chandni Chowk. He could drop the ‘2000’ when he joined India Today magazine in 1984 as a senior sub editor, rising to be its copy and books editor and premier desk jockey. Tejpal knew India Today would provide respectability, but his desk job would not give the recognition he craved for. Working with powerful editors, famous bylines and well-connected correspondents, he realised the true power and prestige of being an editor. Restless by nature and given to speak in fast staccato bursts accompanied by howls of laughter, Tejpal decided it was time to strike out. He left India Today in 1994, and was made the boss of a magazine of his own in The Financial Express, where he realized his long standing dream of going abroad for the first time when the editor sent him on a junket to London.
“He was always resentful that he was never sent abroad while many of his colleagues were always travelling overseas at company expense or on junkets,” said a former friend and a well-known publisher. That resentment was assuaged as he made the big time leap was as Managing Editor of Outlook, which was launched to take on the might of India Today, and where he began to acquire glamorous and powerful friends. “He was always an amazing networker,” says a former colleague who is now a homemaker, “He was hungry to make it big and had the charm, wit and drive to make it.”
This hunger made him the first to see the possibility of the Internet’s power, which married with journalistic ingenuity. Tehelka became King of Sting with two powerful spy cam operations on corruption in the defence ministry and the BJP president of the time Bangaru Laxman taking a `1 lakh bribe. It firmly established him and his news portal as the new shining knight of the truth. The NDA government came down on Tehelka with a heavy fist, which made Tejpal a hero in the West as an honest man fighting the good fight. “The amazing thing the exposé did for someone like me—a chronic literary animal—is to open up an incredible hinterland of material, as becomes seldom available to writers of fiction: rare insights into the metabolisms of power, the underbelly of India, crime and politics, justice and spirituality,” Tejpal said in an interview. He has a way with words; a turn of phrase that enhances his earthy charm but the arrogance of the word ‘recuse’ has betrayed him. But after the sexual assault, like any medieval sinner he emailed Chaudhury that he “must do the penance that lacerates me. I am therefore offering to recuse myself from the editorship of Tehelka, and from the Tehelka office, for the next six months.” Readers were struck speechless. For once, Tejpal’s words had failed him.
His detractors say that with principles, Tejpal has always sailed close to the wind. Immediately after the success of Tehelka’s sting operation, he was accused of taking the credit while the journalists who carried out the operations were relegated to obscurity. Disgusted, one of them quit to form his own outfit. Another complains that Tehelka refused to pay him his salary and he had to fight in the courts on his own. Then it was time to go from the digital to the written word that Tejpal has always loved and revelled in; he started Tehelka magazine with a brilliant brainwave—taking loans of Rs.1 lakh each from friends and well-wishers, which would be paid back after the magazine made a profit. But most of them complain he hasn’t returned the money even after the magazine was sold to powerful politicians and corporates for a gigantic undisclosed amount. Tejpal carved out a special niche for his brand, as a non-conformist outsider with a passion for justice and was willing to take to unorthodox means to attain it. Tehelka’s crusades against right wing figures like Narendra Modi has led to questions on the magazine’s political funding. Controversies have dogged the self-proclaimed crusader over corporate sponsorships, killing stories about illegal mining by corporates supporting Think, trying to arm-twist a former Goa chief minister for funds and making deals with shady financial operators. After the news of the assault went viral, questions were raised on who owns Tehelka, which is a subsidiary of Anant Media. According to the latest annual return filed by Anant Media, in addition to Tejpal, sister Neena Sharma and their parents, on the board are Chandigarh-based Praveen Kumar Rathee and Satish Mehta. Delhi-based Weldon Polymers, Jaipur-based Rajasthan Patrika, London-based journalist Priyanka Gill, Ram Jethmalani and Kapil Sibal. Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP Kanwar Deep Singh’s has invested in Tehelka through the KDS Corporation and its subsidiary Royal Building and Infrastructure. Its 65.75 per cent stake makes Royal the largest shareholder in Anant Media. Tejpal holds 19.25 per cent. The composition of Tehelka’s advisory board shows Tejpal’s influence across disciplines—activists Anna Hazare, Swami Agnivesh and Mallika Sarabhai, writers Khushwant Singh, Sir V S Naipaul, U R Ananthamurthy and Mahasweta Devi; journalists Kuldip Nayar and Mark Tully; lawyers Ram Jethmalani and Kapil Sibal; theatre celebrities Shyam Benegal, and Alyque Padamsee; film personalities Mahesh Bhatt, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan and former supercop and Punjab governor Julio Ribeiro.
It is a wags to riches journey for the man who writes haunting adjective-laden prose but cannot speak a single sentence without an expletive in it. The Think fest was Tejpal’s crowning glory that showed off his power and global influence, which he had so desperately schmoozed and struggled for. Until the nights of November 8-10th, when in a drunken state he pulled a young colleague into the lift.
Tehelka’s mascot is the crow and in 2011 he had much to crow about. The small town sub-editor is today a millionaire and a global celebrity with friends in Mayfair and Manhattan, Bollywood and Hollywood. He owns properties in Delhi, Mashobara, Kasauli and reportedly an entire village in Goa including a deluxe mansion. He jet sets to dine with literary agents in London and actors in Los Angeles. He loves cruise holidays. On the first day of the first Think in 2011, Tejpal achieved his dream of speaking to a stellar audience that represented the rich, powerful and glamorous of the world. He greeted them flamboyantly with risque humor, “Eat and sleep well with anybody you think of, but get ready to arrive early because we have a packed house.” Three years later, the editorial impresario had eaten and drunk well on the fateful night when he got into a lift with an attractive young colleague, but couldn’t quite manage the last part. “He always had the glad eye,” says a former editor, perhaps a tad jealously, adding that the best looking girls in India Today magazine worked on Tejpal’s team. Today he has got the packed house he wanted, hissing and jeering at his misconduct, but it is one made of cards that sleaze has tipped over.